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Ellis on the Sixth Hour of 'John Adams'

Behind-the-scenes struggles in writing this week's episode of the HBO miniseries
John Patrick Diggins, author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series, Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, and Kirk Ellis, writer and co-executive producer of the HBO miniseries "John Adams," are discussing the show on Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American Historyjoined the discussion. This is the fourteenth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation.

Dear Steve and Jack,

You've analyzed the most recent episode so thoroughly (and so favorably) that I'm not sure I can add much to the discussion--but I'll certainly try.

Part 6 is one of my favorites, and was one of the most satisfying to write. I'm surprised that neither of you mentioned the theatre scene, where Adams's arrival is acclaimed by the audience with a chorus of "Hail, Columbia." After the failures and diplomatic disasters of Adams's years as ambassador and vice president, that ovation--well-publicized at the time and chronicled in David's book--represents perhaps the high-water mark of Adams's career, perhaps his only real moment of unalloyed triumph. (A note for trivia collectors: The prologue being proclaimed at the start of the scene is taken from The Contrast, the first home-grown American drama, written by none other than Royall Tyler, the object of Nabby Adams's first ill-fated love affair.)

I also like this episode because, along with Part 2, it is the most self-contained of our stories. This is perhaps the occasion to remark on the overall construction of the miniseries. While I made an effort to give each chapter a certain independent shape, it must never be forgotten that the individual episodes are but segments of one large, nine-hour drama. Act One (Parts 1 and 2) take the protagonist from uncommitted Boston lawyer to the voice of independence, culminating in the great floor debate and the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence; Act Two (Parts 3 to 5, or what Steve might style "the pathetic period") charts, like most second acts, the protagonist's increasingly difficult struggle to attain his goals, culminating in Act Three (Parts 6 and 7), when his commitment to principle undergoes--and passes--its most difficult test.

Jack observes that, far from being "digressive asides," the personal stories interpolated into the political action are meant to reveal character. In conceiving the template for the show, I wanted to emphasize the "inside-out" view of history, allowing our characters to lead us through events rather than imposing them on a grand canvas. Throughout development and production, we continually adjusted scenes in order to strike the proper balance between the political and the personal. Fortunately, Adams's rich marriage and complicated family life made that goal attainable.

I will confess that David McCullough and I continue to disagree over the script's treatment of Adams's relationship with his sons, particularly Charles. In his book, David takes great pains to ascribe Charles's drunkenness and dissipation to mitigating factors, including a genetic predisposition to alcoholism on the part of the male branch of Abigail's family. But I saw a clear dynamic at work, one typical in families blessed (or, as the case may be, cursed) by what Adams called "the ambition to excel." Such formidable pressures are not easy for sensitive dispositions to withstand, and political dynasties from the Adamses to the Goldwaters and beyond are rife with stories similar to that of Charles. The pattern played itself out even within the next generation of Adams's family. John Quincy's son Charles Francis achieved greatness as a statesman, but his brother George Washington Adams was not so fortunate, succumbing to alcoholism and eventually suicide. Paul Nagel's book Descent from Glory chronicles this decline.

This is not to put a modern slant on the historical record; far from it. One of the things that so frequently ruins dramatic history in any form is the imposition of modern values and mores on the thoughts and actions of people who lived in distant eras. A writer's task in these efforts is not to judge his characters, but to get inside their heads and attempt to think as they thought, and express those thoughts in appropriate language. What makes the founding period so extraordinary is precisely how contemporary it seems in its concerns, which I think to a large degree explains the immense popularity of the series thus far. Those Adams-Jefferson-Hamilton dialogues to which you both repeatedly refer are perhaps the best example. Those conversations are the heart of a still-raging debate we have yet to--and may never--resolve.

While we're talking history, I'll admit I was relieved that both of you gave me a "pass" when it came to the accuracy of that Jay Treaty scene in last week's episode. As you know, Senate ratification of treaties requires a two-thirds vote, not a simple majority, as the scene depicted; the Jay Treaty in fact garnered exactly that two-thirds majority--20 votes to 10. Making the decision to alter not only the historical record but also Senate procedure was the most wrenching of any made in the course of writing the script. Adams did cast more tie-breaking votes than any vice president in history, always on the side of the administration, and we needed to show it. Somehow, votes on arcane protocols and molasses taxes didn't quite do the trick, so we opted for the Jay Treaty. The scene delivers the dramatic goods, but I still have mixed feelings about the invention.

I'm glad you both were so impressed by those White House-under-construction scenes. That exterior is one of production designer Gemma Jackson's most amazing achievements. The building facade and slave camp (slightly enhanced by visual effects) were constructed on a clear-cut field along Highway 5 just south of Richmond, Virginia. All that timber, you might say, just fell into our laps--but coating several acres with artificial snow was no easy task. The East Room interior, believe it or not, is a transformation of the same soundstage that once housed the Second Continental Congress. I love those White House scenes: They bring to life the shocking reality of early Washington, D.C.--truly a backwater among backwaters. There's something wonderfully elegiac in the shots of Adams working alone at his desk in those vast, still-unfinished rooms.

As to the make-up, Steve, less is always more. In the early episodes, Paul and Laura wear virtually no make-up at all. Trefor Proud, our make-up guru, is especially adept at suggesting age with a minimum of latex. As the characters age, their faces become more blotchy, the teeth blacker (actually a not-bad-tasting natural paste), the lines more visible; changing hairstyles also add to the illusion. It does help to have actors as gifted as Paul and Laura, true character actors who can play well beyond their actual years. You'll see an even more radical transformation of them both in next week's episode, dealing with Adams's years in retirement. Paul's appearance as the 90-year-old Adams required five hours in the make-up trailer, and the results are extraordinary.

Perhaps the best testament to the effectiveness of the makeup is that when David McCullough finally saw Paul walking through the halls of HBO's New York City office, months after we'd wrapped shooting, he failed to recognize him as the same man who'd played John Adams. Now that's acting.



John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series. Kirk Ellis is the writer and co-executive producer of HBO's John Adams. Alan Taylor, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Writing Early American History. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, Alan Taylor, and Steven Waldman